What are Manchester United’s post-Mourinho options?

Words By Alex Stewart Illustration by Philippe Fenner
October 10, 2018

If Manchester United and Jose Mourinho part ways mid-season, who might take over? Betting odds tells us that the top five most likely replacements are the following, in order of most to least likely: Zinedine Zidane, Antonio Conte, Mauricio Pochettino, Carlo Ancelotti and Laurent Blanc. Other names have cropped up too: Massimo Allegri, Eddie Howe, Diego Simeone, and Roberto Martinez, as well as current Manchester United U21s coach Michael Carrick and Wales manager Ryan Giggs, another Old Trafford icon, but they are not favourites and some, like Simeone and Allegri, seem extraordinarily unlikely.

A few of these names can likely be discounted. Pochettino is overseeing a project at Spurs, with a new stadium on-line shortly and key players tied down to good, long-term contracts. He could be United’s go-to as a longer-term successor to Mourinho, but Pochettino will not abandon Spurs mid-season.

Ancelotti is the sort of big-name, trophy-winning boss that United would like, but he has only just started at Napoli, and leaving a new team in his home country after such a short time makes little sense. Zidane, Conte, and Blanc, however, are all out of work currently, which would suit United should they need to move before the season finishes.

The most obvious choice is, in some ways, Conte. He’s a proven winner and has succeeded Jose Mourinho already at a club, Chelsea, albeit after Guus Hiddink’s half a season interregnum. He’s accustomed to the Premier League, too, and knows what is required to beat Burnley or Southampton as much as he does Manchester City or Liverpool. While Conte experimented with a back four at Chelsea, his success there and at his previous club Juventus revolved around a back three, with wing backs pushing up, and inside forwards occupying the half spaces and attacking at pace.

In defence, this system fell back into a 5-4-1, with N’Golo Kante shielding, and looked to break at pace through the ability of players like Eden Hazard, while Diego Costa acted as a physical focal point who could also drop intelligently.

While Conte seems like a natural fit in some regards, there would be issues. Alexis Sanchez is not Hazard and there is no N’Golo Kante figure, but Conte has worked, and worked well, with Pogba before, while he has also managed Nemanja Matic. The biggest question mark would be around United’s ability to play Conte’s favoured 3-4-3 or 3-5-2 systems. He has used a back four before, at Chelsea without huge success, but also at Bari and Juventus. While Luke Shaw, Ashley Young, and Antonio Valencia could play as wing-backs, there are clear question marks around United’s central defensive options – there is a strong school of thought, though, that would advocate using three as a means of mitigating this weakness.

Zinedine Zidane, who is currently taking a sabbatical from football much as Pep Guardiola did before moving to Bayern, has real pedigree from his short managerial career. The former Real Madrid boss is certainly box office and a club like United, who see off-the-pitch business as crucial, would derive a boost from acquiring Zidane. As a recent article by Emmet Gates on Tifo showed, Juventus gained almost 5 million followers across various social media platforms in the two weeks following Ronaldo’s move to the club; though clearly not to the same degree, Zidane could have a similar effect for United, and there are very few managers for whom that could be said. Tactically, Zidane’s successful Real Madrid team played as a 4-3-3 or a 4-3-1-2, with Casemiro anchoring, high full backs, and a pressing system not unlike Mourinho’s – a mid-block that forces the opposition back before trying to coral them wide. Zidane tended to ask his players to mark passing lanes rather than press as aggressively, but there are enough similarities that this would not be a huge change for United’s players to get around.

While there was a perception that Zidane’s mastery at Real Madrid was achieved because of personnel as opposed to tactical finesse, Zidane did successfully implement some defensive changes and made good in-game adjustments to his team in crucial fixtures. He did also manage his dressing room well and could restore some much-needed harmony at United.

Laurent Blanc, a former United player, won three league titles at Paris Saint-Germain but also won Ligue 1 in 2008/09 with Bordeaux, taking them to a Champions League quarter-final as well. Blanc showed in his time at PSG that he could manage big egos like Zlatan Ibrahimovic and promote young players like Kingsley Coman, Presnel Kimpembe, and Adrien Rabiot, while also signing prospects like Marqinhos and turning them into superb players. Indeed, Blanc’s general recruitment was also praised, for example securing Angel di Maria from a lost season at United and restoring him to brilliance.

Assuming his time at PSG gives a good indication of his tactical preferences, Blanc likes a possession-orientated 4-3-3 with a defensive midfield dropping to assist the centre backs and the full backs pushing high to offer width.

Generally, the central midfielders ahead of this deep-dropping anchor would not advance too much, but would rather look to create overloads with the wide full backs or the wider players in the front three, who would regularly drop back to do this. This creation of overloads was based on regular positional movement and excellent passing – PSG did not, generally, look to break the opposition lines by carrying the ball having isolated a defender, but tried to use consistent passing and movement within the whole team structure to attack.

The wide attackers, playing like inside forwards, were crucial to this, as were the excellent passing midfielders, and PSG therefore tended to build their attacks centrally, only injecting pace out wide if a full back was free. Blanc trusted his players to play with positional fluidity in order to create these overloads, and PSG could produce wonderfully watchable football as a result. This would suit United, especially Jesse Lingard and Juan Mata, but could restrict Pogba’s dynamism. Blanc was also used to having at least two strong, ball-playing centre backs to facilitate PSG’s progression from the back; in this, United are sorely lacking. Nonetheless, there are clear tactical arguments to suggest that Blanc could be a good fit for United, as well as his association with the club, his man management and youth development skills, and his track record of success. He has, however, been out of work since 2016 and could be a little rusty, which is a situation United can ill-afford.

Should Mourinho cling on until the summer, the list of replacements could be very different, but a mid-season departure will certainly restrict Manchester United’s options.

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